Jalapeno: a fiery offshoot in the chili pepper family

July 28, 1993|By RITA CALVERT | RITA CALVERT,Contributing Writer

Ever wonder what the difference is between mincing, dicing and chopping? Or exactly what size knives you should be using? You're not alone. So many readers write or call us each week with questions about ingredients, techniques and tools that we're launching a new column today called "What's Cooking?" to help answer some of these queries. All questions are welcome, and nothing is too simple or silly to ask.

Address inquiries to: What's Cooking, Attn: Rita Calvert, c/o Food & Home, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

Q: What is the difference between chili peppers and jalapeno peppers?

A: There are more than 200 varieties of chili peppers. Jalapeno is one of the best-known members of that family. Named after Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz, Mexico, these fiery peppers are a smooth, dark green, have a rounded tip and range from 1 inch to 2 inches in length. The seeds intensify the chili's heat but can be easily removed for less fire. Jalapenos will vary in their degree of heat.

Q: What is lemon zest?

A: Zest is the colored, perfumed outermost layer of the lemon (or lime or orange). This skin contains the highly flavored volatile oils of the fruit. The white pith immediately beneath has a bitter flavor and is not considered part of the zest. A tool called a zester works well for getting thin strips of zest without any pith, but in most applications, the smaller side of a sharp grater (not plastic) is preferred for recipes because it yields a smaller cut. A dish brush works well for cleaning a grater.

Q: What is the difference between diced, finely chopped and minced?

A: Dicing is a cube cut ranging from 1/8 -inch to 1/4 -inch in size. Mincing means cutting food into even smaller, uniform pieces than in dicing. This fine cut is often recommended for garlic and shallots. Finely chopped is a less specific term referring to very small cuts of food, similar in size to mincing but not necessarily a cube shape.

Q: What knives should a beginning cook have?

A: These are the cook's most important tools. Your first step should be to find a brand that fits the size of your hand. A good knife should be sturdy, with the weight evenly balanced. Recommended knives as a starter set are:

* Chef or French knife: all-purpose, with a broad, tapered 8- to 14-inch blade. Used for a variety of chopping and slicing chores.

* Utility knife: smaller chef's knife with a 5- to 7-inch blade used for light cutting or slicing.

* Paring knife: small knife with a short blade, 4 inches in length, useful for peeling, coring and trimming vegetables and fruit.

* Slicing knife: longer-bladed, round-tipped knife with a serrated, scalloped or fluted edge that neatly slices soft or cooked foods such as meats, breads and vegetables.

* Boning knife: thinner, rigid blade about 6 inches long for separating meat from the bone.

Q: What is a leek and how should I prepare it?

A: The leek, a vegetable within the onion/garlic family, is milder. It looks like a giant scallion. The white part is usable and the green is usually discarded, unless reserved to flavor homemade stocks. Before using, trim roots and green ends. Slit from top to bottom and clean thoroughly by rinsing between layers.

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